John Lees’ BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST brought the BJH 50th anniversary tour to Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall tonight, and over a show consisting of a shorter opening set with an extended second set they brought a selection of music from the very beginning of John’s recording career up to their latest album North.
Any BJH fan at the show tonight will need no introduction to the band, but a quick catch up for anyone not too familiar with the band is maybe in order at this point of the review, as the history of BJH and the people behind the music are very much a part of this 50th anniversary tour.
Barclay James Harvest are one of the pioneers of the British Progressive Rock movement, and the band was founded by guitarist/vocalist John Lees, vocalist Les Holroyd, keyboardist/vocalist Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme and drummer/percussionist Mel Pritchard. Formed in 1966, in early 1968 the band got their first recording contract, and here we are 50 years later celebrating their musical legacy. Over the years, the band (and individual members) have created a large musical legacy that has seen them be both commercially and artistically successful, but at times over-shadowed by more “industry visible” contemporaries, and that is an odd historical oversight as their musical legacy leaves BJH right at the centre of their chosen musical genre. Along the decades too, band membership has changed for many reasons, and this band John Lees’ BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST was formed in 1998 and has also created its own individual musical legacy.
The current line up of John Lees’ BJH consists of John Lees (vocalist and lead guitarist), Craig Fletcher (original band member since the 1998 band was formed – bass guitar and vocals), Kevin Whitehead (drums) and Jez Smith (keyboards), and it was nice to hear the band paying honest and at times emotional tribute to original BJH co-founder Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme (b 1947, d 2010) both in words and song tonight.
Where do you even begin to select a set list from over 50 years of music as for every song you put in you miss out someone else’s favourite? I guess there is no answer to that question, but with a set list that included songs like “The Iron Maiden”, “In Memory of The Martyr”, “Mocking Bird”, “Hymn”, “In My Life” and “Early Morning”, judging by the audience reaction, they got the balance just right here. The evening was not just about looking back over time though, and the title track from the bands last album “North” clearly shows in this musical tribute to the band’s hometown of Oldham and its people and history that BJH are still a creative force to be reckoned with.
One interesting topic brought up in the show was a project that BJH are involved with where bands perform one of their albums live on stage in its entirety. For this, we were treated to the band’s first live performance of “Paper Wings” from the 1974 album “Everyone is Everybody Else”, and this modern day story of an Icarus thinking he could fly from the Eiffel Tower with a paper kite illustrates not only how music has changed over the years, but also how people as consumers listen to it, and the internet has had both a positive and a negative impact on both. On one hand, music is now instantly available in a way that someone like myself growing up and listening to music on old vinyl records could never have imagined, but on the other hand, the almost magpie like downloading of individual album tracks makes the musical story and cohesion of an album’s concept a growing thing of the past. The days of the vast musical journeys through words and music that bands like BJH could take you on seems to be coming to an end, and we as listeners are losing so much here.
Normally I never comment on little sound issues at a show, but for this one I have to as the first set of this show was marred by sound issues that meant that drums and keyboards were often making it difficult to hear John Lees’ guitar work and vocals, and that was what a lot of people had come to hear. This was odd, because The Queen’s Hall is one of the great natural acoustic spaces in Edinburgh, but perhaps here large drum kit and keyboard arrangement were a bit more difficult to balance sound wise. The problem was though tended to, and a vastly improved second set sound balance obtained. There is also no getting away from the fact that although John Lees’ guitar work was, as expected, a pleasure to listen to, his vocals (although still very good) are those of a man of his age, and I think that for some people to have been expecting the vocals of a man as per the albums 40 or more years ago was simply unrealistic. There were times though that that “age” in his voice actually added to the power of some of the songs’ lyrics.
Barclay James Harvest have always first and foremost over the years been known for the quality of their musicianship and their intricate and musically advanced song arrangements, and nothing has changed over the years with the current line up more than living up to the band’s 50 year old musical legacy.
Review by Tom King